A Quarrel That Shook Me

In the building I live in, are many children, of different age groups. The kids are busy playing about in the evenings when I get back from work. Sometimes, I watch a few kids huddled over colourful picture books, examining and commenting on every page. The sight makes me pleased as punch. At other times, I see a squabble or two, usually over a misplaced shuttlecock. But rarely do I see a full-blown quarrel as ugly as I did that evening.

No, it wasn’t violent. The kids weren’t thrashing each other. It was essentially a verbal spat. A little guy about six years old was tugging at a book that was in the clutches of a little girl, perhaps about eight.

“Give me my book back!”

“No!”

“You idiot!”

“You stupid!”

The little guy paused, fumed. “Please de do. Panna phat jaayega.” (Please give it to me. The page will get torn.)

The girl giggled, much too loudly. “What ‘panna’? It is called page, you gawaar (illiterate)!”

Some of the other kids who had congregated at the scene joined in the giggling. “Panna! Panna!” they chuckled, as if it was the funniest word they had ever come across in their young lives. The object of their laughter—the now red-faced boy—remained silent. He ran into the elevator when the door opened.

The scene stirred me up—and not in a good way. I kept thinking of how the boy’s face had gone beetroot red, how he would get mercilessly teased for the next few days. And why? Only because he had used a Hindi word when everyone else had been speaking in English. Talking in Hindi made him “illiterate”, somehow less cool, not worthy of being part of an elitist group of kids some of whom probably still needed diapers at night.

Kids say all sorts of things, I know. Very often, they don’t mean to be unkind. But what irked me was the line of thought that was clearly getting ingrained in their impressionable minds. English was socially acceptable and “high class”, but Hindi (and perhaps other vernacular languages) was best confined to the house.

I have a good guess about the source of this skewed belief system. Parents addressed everyone in English, including the milkman, the vegetable vendors, and the maids; they didn’t mind the curious glances and empty stares they received when someone failed to understand their tongue. Hindi books at the bookstore were out of bounds; you were supposed to read only English titles. It was stylish to listen to English music; Hindi songs were, at best, a guilty pleasure. If you scored low marks in Hindi in school, it was understandable, as kids “are not comfortable with it, you see”. Hindi was just something you memorised as one of India’s official languages (it isn’t, by the way, our “national language”). If you wanted to make your mark in the world, you had to rise above it.

I know, I know. Sometimes, I work myself up into a frenzy over things like these, but it distresses me to see little kids get conditioned to behave in prejudiced ways. I hope more parents realise that raising bilingual kids has been scientifically proven to be optimum for mental development. I wish more parents attempt to instil in their kids a love for languages as modes of expression, not ladders to climb up the echelons of society.

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20 thoughts on “A Quarrel That Shook Me

  1. I felt sad reading this post of yours. And yes I agree. We are spoiling our kids by reducing their exposure to vernacular languages. Even if one parent tries to inculcate it at home, peer pressure will lead to the kid taking up English. It is difficult to throw away this mindset. Whatever happened to the concept of knowing more languages is a pride?

    On a side note, congrats for knowing Hindi is not the national language of India. A lot of people mistake it to be so. However I do believe that having one uniform language that is recognized throughout the length and breadth of India would be useful.

    • Yeah – I too have experienced this parental disagreement over choosing the “dominant” language. I used to think that being multilingual is a matter of pride – still do – but it seems some tongues are more “royal” than others!

      Haha yes, many are the people I have corrected over the mistaken belief that Hindi is our national language. 😀

  2. Ah, another post that tugs at my heart since my kid was at the receiving end for speaking in Bangla just before the admissions started. While we had no option but to start training him in English, we still make it a point to talk to him in Bangla at home

    • I remember reading about it on your blog. Really sad it is, the way they bulldoze us into believing a certain language is superior. Glad you keep the spirit of diversity alive at home 🙂

  3. I am totally with you on this point – “I hope more parents realise that raising bilingual kids has been scientifically proven to be optimum for mental development.”

    Sadly, peer pressure of speaking in English is overtaking and “eclipsing” other languages, esp the native tongue of many! We can only wish for more “aware” parents who know and realize the importance of “right kind of education!”

  4. This is so sad. That little boy. ❤ My heart hurts for him.
    And this is how languages get lost. I hope he keeps using Hindi. I'm impressed with his language skills. It takes intelligence and great flexability to switch back and forth like that.

    • Exactly. Silent, sometimes unconscious, prejudices like these have killed many a language.
      Totally agree with you on his language skills – being able to switch like that and speak fluently in both at such a young age is indeed praiseworthy. Kids pick up languages real quick! 🙂

  5. I know, right. This conditioning just doesn’t feel right. It is so wrong. And the way people judge a person based on how fluent they are in the laguage ‘English’ speaks about them too. Itnis wrong on so many levels. Its like we respect a language kore than knowledge. I hate to see this everywhere.

    • So very true! Appreciating the way someone talks or writes is a different thing, but preferring one language to another, or somehow advocating that a certain language is “classy”, feels absurd. Even if we like to believe things like that as “adults”, I sincerely wish we’d keep kids out of it.

  6. A fair point Deboshree, it is such a shame that there is an inherent conceit attached to the language use. I remember this used to happen a lot between convent going children and non convent children when I used to grow up. There was an inherent sense of superiority based on the quality of english. The worst part is, for a long time, I believed in the superiority of a language only to realise it is nothing but a mode of communication. There are far more important things than the mode of communication – like the matter being shared.

    • Warm welcome here, Vinay. So good to hear from you 🙂
      I loved the way you put that: the matter being shared should definitely be valued more than the mode of communication. I think that parents, teachers and other influencers for children need to work on removing such skewed value judgments based on the choice of language.

      • Pleasure Deboshree, I would be very interested to read more from you. I liked the post and its social message, there are so many stigmas and wrong associations in the society which pushes real talent and people away. Every fight put in against it is a very impactful one and highly sensible.

  7. My heart really ached right now. Poor child. These little moments end up scarring children for life. It’s sad. But your right, what’s sadder is the thought process most kids these days tend to have. And the only solution to it is that parents should be careful in their upbringing. I feel these issues are going to increase with time. Most schools these are are even eliminating hindi or keeping it an optional subject. We really need to make the newer generation understand and most importantly respect every language and culture.

    • Agree with you, Tanvi. Trivial as they may seem to us, little moments tend to affect children profoundly. The little guy is certain to think twice before speaking in Hindi with the colony kids again.

      Yes, I also hope that both schools and parents realize that while it is great to help kids learn English (or other languages like German, for that matter), they shouldn’t do so by trampling the vernaculars. It is a thoroughly misguided approach.

  8. What a good post. I am totally in agreement here. Our idea of education itself is totally _____. And this language bias takes the cake. It’s so disheartening to see this attitude in children particularly. You got an apt post.

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